It is an astonishing 39 years since the first Springsteen album, and the release of Wrecking Ball shows that The Boss has no plans to slow down just yet. But one of the reasons for his longevity is the variety of the music he produces. We all know he can do flat out blue collar rock as well as anyone, but unlike many artists Springsteen doesn’t just churn out formulaic records that sound much like their predecessors.
This album does have some familiar Springsteen themes and characters, and there are a couple of typical rockers in there. But musically it also draws a lot from the Seegar Sessions folk stylings, and there are elements of country, gospel, Celtic rock and even rap in there too. In fact this American album draws from almost every strand of American music– and that’s no coincidence. I’m sure. Add in some electronic samples, a couple of choirs, a whole host of backing singers and you have a unique musical background on which Springsteen can work his magic.
And this is undoubtedly a Bruce Springsteen solo album; it’s not an E Street project. Drummer Max Weinberg and Patti Scialfa get credits while the late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance in typical style. But much of the record relies on the Seegar Sessions Band along with producer Ron Aniello and guitarists Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Marc Muller.
Wrecking Ball is an album of two halves – side one and side two of a record for those of us who still think in these terms. And I believe that the famously perfectionist Springsteen probably does. His song choices and their order on the final product are always carefully thought out to create the effect he has in his head.
Side one opens with the single We Take Care Of Our Own, which is the most E Street Band sounding song on the album. But the message is not the one that the title implies. There is an irony here: just as Born In The USA was an angry song misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, this is a call for justice rather than a description of a caring modern day America. It’s a plea for jobs: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?”
Easy Money has a character with another answer. He goes out with his thirty eight and his girl and simply takes the money he needs to survive. Well, if it is good enough for the fat cats to steal, then why not, he rationalises? And the joyous nature of the music shows that he does not feel in way guilty about the choice he has made.
Shackled and Drawn is an old style protest folk song. The central character loves “the feel of sweat on my shirt” and again wants to work. But what’s “a poor boy” to do if there is no work? And the cause of this unemployment is clear: “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the price”. The track ends in a church with a spiritual call to arms.
In the next track we again have a narrator desperate for work. And he will do anything to make a living, this Jack Of All Trades. No manual task is beneath him as he struggles to feed his family. This beautiful slow, piano driven song with its mournful trumpet solo is sung has a delicious empathy and a resignation to fate. He knows these economic problems have happened before and that they will inevitably happen again. But there is a deep seated anger too: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”
Death To My Hometown is something of a dichotomy. Musically it is a rich, Celtic rocker, stomping along in true Irish fashion with penny whistles and violins picking out the melody. But there is an anger at the destruction that has been wrought without the need for cannon balls or powder flashes. For this death was caused by ”the robber barons” and “greedy thieves”.
What I think of as side one ends with This Depression, a slower brooding song that is lyrically quite simple. The depth of feeling displayed is terrible to hear as the protagonist struggles with both kinds of depression, economic and medical. It features an excellent Tom Morello guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Pink Floyd track.
Side two begins the fight back against the despair and disenfranchisement with the title track. Wrecking Ball is superficially about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where Springsteen debuted the song in its last ever concert. But there is a call to arms, “Hold tight to your anger”, and a recognition that hard times will come and go, but will always come again.
You’ve Got It is a simple upbeat love song with more excellent lead guitar work. It acts as a break from the darkness before the closing songs of the album, where Biblical language comes to the fore and a spiritual redemption is sought from the earthly trials that the earlier songs have described.
I don’t get Rocky Ground at all in a musical sense. There’s a lot going on with a Michelle Moore rap, an electronic sample and a trumpet as well as the vocal and it sounds confused to me. The lyrics are clear though, with money changers, shepherds and a forty day exile all referenced before the exaltation that a new day is coming for those who have kept faith.
Land Of Hope And Dreams is an old song, familiar as an encore in Springeteen’s shows, but recorded in the studio for the first time. It uses the old metaphor of a train as the vehicle through which the journey to salvation can be made. All are welcome to board, the whores and gamblers as well as the lost souls and the broken hearted. But “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded”.
I wondered how this song would translate to the studio, but it retains all of the energy and exuberance that make it a live favourite. The track also marks the final contribution of Clarence Clemons to Springsteen’s work and it is a bitter sweet moment when the sax kicks in.
The album proper closes with We Are Alive, an acoustic track full of resurrection imagery that grows into something spiritual and even borrows a melody from June Carter Cash’s Ring of Fire. The memory of those killed in struggles over the years are invoked as the dead rise from their graves and “Our souls and spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark.” There is not just recognition of the enduring human spirit but an echo of the earlier call to arms here.
There are two bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album. Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale) is dark yet not depressing, slow yet not a dirge. It’s as moving as anything I’ve heard in a very long time. And American Land, familiar to Seegar Sessions fans, is a jubilant celebration of the contribution of immigrants to the rise of the USA.
If the previous Springsteen album, Working On A Dream was an optimistic look forward to the new Obama administration, this one is very much grounded in the current economic climate.
Springsteen himself has called it his most direct album. At times the songs seethe with righteous anger about the way the poor pay for the excesses and the mistakes of the rich. But it does so in a fashion that doesn’t preach; rather it draws the listener in and creates empathy with his characters.
Wrecking Ball is yet another fine album from Bruce Springsteen. It is, at its core, a very American album, written for an election year, but is one which travels well. Dealing primarily with the fight for economic justice in times of recession its theme will also resonate with a European audience.